I first saw Session 9 back in 2002 or so as a recommendation from a friend. He said it would be "right up my alley," so naturally I was curious. I watched it at my parent's house, with my dad in the other room and the light on in the kitchen. As the film progressed, so to did the number of times I was looking over my shoulder. When it was done, I was left genuinely frightened at Brad Anderson's tale of human vulnerability set in an old, abandoned mental institution. I was also left with a lot of questions. This isn't because the film is necessarily confusing, it just leaves a lot open to interpretation.
To date, nothing has been able to knock Session 9 out of the top spot for me, and the very fact that I get to discuss it with more than a small handful of people makes me undeniably ecstatic. Fair warning: what you're about to read is pretty long, so I can only hope you love this film as much as I do. Also, as per usual, there are so many spoilers beneath the cut your head will explode.
In my initial post introducing the film, I made the bold and some might say hyperbolic claim that it is one of the best horror movies ever made. I'm not going to attempt to argue my case; it's my opinion and if others disagree so be it. To me, Session 9 is an utterly magnificent psychological slow burn that dares to defy convention. I recall reading how Anderson proclaimed his intent was to utilize the hospital to its fullest potential without relying on the hackneyed "kids go into hospital to scare each other" scenario. To me this takes balls, and is the sign of a filmmakers unwilling to let go of his artistic vision for the sake of what's popular. Beyond this, Session 9 represents what I feel equals the quintessential subject for horror: the frailty and inherent weakness of the human mind. It dispenses with gore and violence in favor of unbridled tension, which is executed to near perfection. The characters are real people with real problems, all of which are affected in their own unique way by Danvers State Hospital. Many consider the looming building to be the unspoken star of the film, but I believe that credit belongs to Simon.
Who, or What, is Simon?
Whenever I instigate a conversation of Session 9, the nature of Simon invariably becomes a hot topic. Several months back I wrote a piece for my own site called "The Why of Simon," and while it garnered a modicum of attention, it was only recently when two individuals came out and began a little back-and-forth discussing the various positions presented in the article. The timing is just perfect.
So who, or what, is Simon? To start, let's look at author Ellen Datlow's position, in which she states that Simon is less an alternate personality and more of a "malignant genius loci." For those who didn't waste several years of their life taking BS Classics courses, a genius loci is a protective spirit of a particular location and a key aspect of classical Roman religion. Two opinions can be formed of this. The first places Simon as the genius loci of the hospital. I find this theory to be wholly incorrect for a number of reasons.
Mary Hobbes clearly suffers from alternate personality disorder. This is not intended to be subtle in any way, and it is revealed that Simon is one of her alters. This, along with the fact that Simon introduced himself to Mary when she fell on the doll and cut herself, throws a huge wrench into the theory that Simon is an "evil protector" of Danvers. Now, one can take the position that Simon introduced himself to Gordon because he dared disturb the hospital, but that, in my opinion, is a load of bunk. Why were the others not affected? Let's toss that theory aside, and with it the notion that Simon is a genius loci of Danvers. We'll return to the idea of Simon as an alter in a moment.
As Datlow's review is not available online, I am not privy to it in its entirety and thus unable to discern whether her theory is the one described above. What I know of it was gleaned from her mention on the Wikipedia page for the film, and sadly there is no expansion on it beyond "he is a malignant genius loci." Even if her theory is the aforementioned one, its incorrectness belies the bigger picture: Simon is indeed a malignant genius loci, but not of the hospital. No, Simon's place is in the mind.
Let's look at the facts as they are presented in the film. Mary Hobbes, through whom we are introduced to Simon and the idea that he is an alternate personality, became aware of him when she was scared by her brother Peter, prompting her to fall on her China doll. Gordon first became aware of Simon as he is touring Danvers in an effort to win the bid. Through this he reveals that he is under a great deal of stress, both personally and financially, and needs the job to support his family and keep his business from folding. Both stressful situations, both the impetus for the introduction of Simon. Although we are unaware of Mary's life before the accident, it is this event that allows Simon to gain access to Mary. Simon compels her to kill her brother and her parents, and as we learn he does the same to Gordon when his wife spills a pot of boiling water on his leg.
So is it fair to call Simon an alternate personality? I believe so, though with a caveat. Several hints allude to the notion that Simon is indeed an alternate; Princess, one of Mary's other alternates is unaware of his existence, though Billy, another alternate, is. This is not unusual in alternate personality cases, and when an alter has taken over, the patient has no recollection of the events that transpire. In the sessions Mary reveals she is unaware of Simon's existence, and is seemingly ignorant of what happened that night in Lowell, Massachussetts. Gordon, after killing his wife, dog and newborn child, is also unaware of Simon's presence, appearing only when he enters a dissociative state.
From this it can be posited that Simon is an inherent personality trait that manifested itself in Mary and Gordon as an alternate, taking over their minds and influencing them to kill. The impetuses for this were the China doll and the pot of boiling water, which is made all the more apparent when Simon tells the doctor, "I live in the weak and the wounded." Although Mary's state of mind before the accident is unknown, Gordon was clearly under a lot of stress ("the weak") and the pot of water simply gave Simon a window through which he could enter (the wounded").
Mary and Gordon
In all of this we see the parallel between Mary and Gordon. A recent commenter brought up the possibility of a greater connection between Mary and Gordon, evidenced by Mary Hobbes' broken tombstone sitting beneath him while he seemingly speaks with his wife in the cemetery. The commenter implies that Gordon may have disturbed the tombstone due to its distance from the cemetery in the background, creating a link between the two and thus providing a link to Simon. I find none of this to be true. At all. Mary is merely a means through which we can be introduced to Simon, and the hospital a means through which we can introduce Mary. There is no connection between the two beyond the weakness of the human mind.
Who are Princess and Billy?
After Mike has begun the tapes, we see him trying to figure out the roles played by Mary's other two alters, Princess and Billy. Scribbled on a notepad are his thoughts on what they represent; Princess is Innocence while Billy is Protection. Later, while Mike is working with Jeff, he refers to him as 'Princess," to which Jeff replies "fuck off, I'm not your princess, dude." Mike is confused, but ultimately it's dismissed. This has garnered a modicum of attention, with some people trying to draw a parallel between the alters and Gordon's employees. I personally do not feel much can be said about this; it's not explored fully, and the only evidence to support the parallel is Gordon and Simon. That said, this could be nothing more than a red herring, designed to throw the viewer off the trail, or simply something designed by Anderson to offer another interpretation of the events.
David Caruso is in this film. To be honest, he's not that bad. He does overact, most noticeably in the animated gif found here, but he's surprisingly subdued throughout the majority of the film. Scottish actor David Mullen embodies the stressed out, overworked Scotsman perfectly, portraying his descent into insanity with incredible believability. One of the defining aspects of the film is its soundtrack. As the tension mounts toward the end of the film, Anderson eschewed a standard "horror movie score" in favor of a long, deep, droning piano note. The soundtrack as a whole is minimalistic in its approach, forcing the tension to be drawn from other sources. There are no jump scares precipitated by an orchestra on crack, just terrifying simplicity.
Simon is one of the most underrated villains in horror, though I can understand why. He (it?) lacks physicality, existing solely as a disembodied voice on a tape recorder and the thoughts of an weak, blue-collar worker. Sadly, he'll never take his rightful place among the pantheon of horror's greatest villains. Beyond this, Session 9 represents everything I look for in a horror movie: solid characters portrayed by solid actors, a minimalist score, and a subject that is truly terrifying. Few are able to portray human weakness so effectively, and for this reason I consider Brad Anderson to be one of the greatest living directors in the horror genre and Session 9 one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
It's a shame Danvers was destroyed a few years back. I imagine it would be an ideal place to stage an Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow.